Cape Coral City council moved a step closer this week to deciding how to assess property owners in Southwest 6 & 7, the neighborhhoods in the next phase of the citywide Utilities Expansion Project.
The issue that remains is how to charge churches, which tend to be low-impact users on larger sites.
Council agreed 5-3 at a special meeting Wednesday to accept a discount for institutional properties. The exact ratio, though, will be determined at another special meeting set for June 5, a date City Manager John Szerlag said is pretty much drop-dead for a decision to be reached.
The ratio of how to figure frontage vs square footage with a possible discount to boot could be important to the survival of some churches, especially the smaller ones that stand on large tracts, meaning they could stand to pay quite a bit in assessments after council agreed to stay, with some possible modifications, with the square footage method of assessing properties at its previous meeting.
In an agreement made in 1996 by churches in regards to another project, they were subsidized 85 percent of their assessments as a result of the work they do for their communities.
But during Wednesday's meeting, some council members thought the current percentage might be a little too much.
"The agreement we reached years ago was a different age. Our general funds had better footing then," Councilmember Kevin McGrail said. "I can't justify it to ratepayers."
McGrail also said that because true numbers won't come out until after the bids come in, any speculation on exact cost is just that.
Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz had a problem with putting ratepayers on the hook at all, saying the money should come from the general fund.
"One-third of the city is ratepayers. They will have to pay 100 percent of the subsidy," Leetz said. "If we were to do this, it would have to come from the general fund. You're raising taxes anyway."
It is expected the subsidy to be paid for institutional properties would be about $290,000 annually at the current percentage.
But a smaller percentage, some say, would put churches against the wall, especially with all the acreage necessary to legally build a church, with parking requirements and other things.
The square-footage method alone could mean six-figure assessments for these institutions.
During public comment at the end of the meeting, numerous pastors told the council just that.
"We see a storm approaching with the UEP. When Charley took our facility in 2004, we had insurance. We have no insurance for this," said Steven Eddy, pastor at the Cape Coral Church of Christ. "You may see a lot of churches leaving. These churches use less water than my house."
The city council also voted 6-2 to offer a 20 percent discount for those who prepay their assessment in full. Those who approved said it was a good way to get fast cash into the system.
Opponents, like Chulakes-Leetz, said it rewards people with money while leaving those who can't afford a lump sum to pay more.